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UM Theologian Responds To Confessing Movement Critics


A Response to Our Critics

By Dr. Thomas C. Oden

As Confessing United Methodists we are "The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church". This is not just a generalized confessing movement, but a movement within and accountable to a particular community of faith, the United Methodist Church. We are neither a caucus nor are we a movement of withdrawal but a movement within the United Methodist Church, and we intend to stay within. We have an enduring intention to remain in the church that baptized us, despite any erroneous talk that we are trying to secede. What disturbs our critics more than that we should leave is that we should stay.

The ecclesiological reform models for many of us are the evangelicals of the church of England who were a minority in the early 20th century but now by diligence and persistence have a substantial leadership voice, including many Anglican bishops. We seek to have the same long term time frame and patience with the United Methodist Church that the evangelical Anglicans have had with the Church of England and to flourish in due time.

The total number of people in our network of friends and supporters is now well over one half million. The Confessing Movement is a grass roots network of mostly lay persons determined to pray and work for the renewal of the United Methodist Church. The Confessinal Statement is a statement that has been signed by over 1300 churches, and many thousands of individuals.

THE CLASSICAL ORTHODOX FAITH

It is not we who have arbitrarily "selected creeds" out of some obscure private motivation, as if in the last ten minutes. They have been selected by an extensive consenting process that has reconfirmed apostolic teaching for almost twenty centuries, and done so in the prototypical form of early baptismal creeds. The western tradition has especially honored three confessions (Apostles, Nicene, and ‘Athanasian’) long before the Anglican and Methodist traditions confirmed them as scriptural.

Orthodoxy has spent many centuries defining parameters, for the purpose of showing how those parameters are scripturally grounded, and commendable to the communion of believers. They help us not to be blown by every wind of doctrine. It is an odd idea that orthodoxy is not concerned with unity of faith. That is its central intention, and it defines boundaries only in order to insure the unity of faith in the apostolic witness. We are indeed free "for faithful theological exploration" within these boundaries, but not apart from them, which appears to be the consistent intention of our critics. If not, they need to inform us where the boundaries lie.

The orthodox teachings of the early Christian writers are seldom of one mind in cultural assumptions, but they are of one mind in consent to apostolic teaching and in rejection of counter-apostolic teachings. All say no with one voice to Arianism, Marcionism, Donatism, Pelegianism, etc. We have a documentary history of these ecumenical negations. They are of one mind when they confess the apostolic faith in their baptismal confession.

There are many ways of articulating the apostolic faith, and that is the purpose of the world wide mission of Christian preaching after Pentecost. But any way of articulation that tends to erase or distort or fail to guard the apostolic tradition as conveyed in Christian canonical Scripture must be rejected. These varieties of affirmation and these consensual rejections have a documentary history into which anyone can inquire.

OUR RESPONSE TO "RADICAL FEMINISM"

There is no small vibration of hatred and disdain in the long list of unpleasant terms used by our critics to dismiss classical Christian teaching, as if it were best described as "patriarchal, classist, pre-Copernican, pre-scientific", and "imperialistic". Classic Christianity deserves a better hearing than that. It has not received a fair hearing from those who are uncritically committed to the assumptions of the Zeitigeist of modernity as the final judge and arbiter of Christian scripture.

We respectfully make a distinction between evangelical feminists and those feminists who advocate abortion and lesbian legitimization. In order to make this distinction we have sometimes used the term "radical feminists", but that is only to distinguish one type of feminism, not all types. It refers specifically to that feminism which is strongly shaped by social location arguments that are largely grounded in a quasi-marxist understanding of oppression, and an interpretation of religion as power, along with very determined lesbian and abortion advocacy. The women of the church are not all "radical feminists". That is a mistake that only a few feminists make nowadays, and it is indeed a fatal mistake to make.

Those who speak up for the apostolic tradition are not divisive; it is rather the objectors to the apostolic witness that are divisive. The most divisive event in recent years is the Reimagining Conference which wrongly linked ecumenical advocacy with abortion advocacy and lesbian advocacy. We are responding to such divisiveness with a search for unity grounded in truth, that truth that is in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Lord, which makes us free.

It is an insult to women who died for the ancient ecumenical faith defined by the ancient ecumenical councils, and there were many women who died, to assume that they had no level of consent to these teachings. That would make their martyrdom disingenuous. Some forms of feminist advocacy insult the integrity of the women martyrs who died on behalf of their triune baptismal confession. The seventh ecumenical council in particular shows the decisive role that women have played in ecumenical consent to apostolic teaching. Christian women have a profound history of fiercely resisting all attempts to dilute conciliar teaching. Such attempts are at stake today in some hyper-feminist attacks on the atonement, the eternal Sonship of Christ, the servant or submission ethic for men and women, and the protection of life.

It is an error of historical judgement to say that there were no ordinary folk, no general lay consent, that shaped and influenced the decisions of the ecumenical councils. Read the decrees of the councils and you will see that they appeal frequently and seriously to the general consent of the whole intergenerational laos. Where the laity in fact did not eventually confirm the councils, even though they were thought to be "ecumenical", they were not received as truly ecumenical. Ecumenicity in its ancient sense required general lay consent, and the laity made up of at least half women and mostly of "ordinary folk".

WESLEY ON DOCTRINE

If there is no confessing tradition in Methodism, as our critics claim, why did Wesley amend the 39 articles into 25? Why were these articles guarded as "our doctrines" by the earliest Conference? Why were they explicitly cited in the conference minutes as "our doctrinal standards"? We have a clear documentary history of this. And why would the 1988 General Conference confirm them once again formally as our doctrinal standards? Our critics appear to be still chafing over the defining of our doctrinal standards in the 1988 discipline. They then opposed, and apparently still oppose these confessional standards, but they are written into our constitution. We urge them to try to change the constitution if they disagree with it, and see how far they will get. They know there is no feasible way to do this.

We are first confessing Christians, then confessing United Methodists. We are deeply committed to the Wesleyan tradition because it is committed to scripture and classic Christian teaching. It is disingenuous to try to revise classic Christian teaching and claim to do so under what pretends to be a Wesleyan flag. Wesley’s sermon on the Catholic Spirit, which our critics sometimes quote tendentiously, specifies twelve detailed paragraphs which by way of penetrating doctrinal questions, set forth key parameters of classic Christian teaching. Only on this thoroughly orthodox basis does Wesley plead in this sermon to "stretch out your hand." The Catholic Spirit is not latitudinarianism, a belief so broad and undefined that it has no content. Absolute tolerance is not an argument for tolerance, but an undermining precisely of those criteria by which tolerance can be honored in the pursuit of truth.

FAITH AND SCRIPTURE

The view that sola scriptura is "no part of the Wesleyan tradition" is easily corrected by reading Wesley’s moving sermon "On Corrupting the Word of God", and his letter to John Dickens: "I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scripture". "The Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church". And "Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture". (WJWX: 142).

It is gross distortion of the 1988 General Conference and all subsequent Disciplines to imply that sola scriptura was "rejected"! Far from rejecting it, that Conference made ever more clear than the 1968-88 Disciplines the primacy of scripture. To assert the sufficiency of scripture alone for salvation, as do our doctrinal standards, is not to deny or delimit the importance of tradition (which is a history of exegesis), or reason, or experience which is formed by scripture.

WE CONFESS

In our baptism we confess our sin and our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the core confession to which "all United Methodist subscribe", and to which we confess. No one who has been baptized a United Methodist can claim that there is no confession in Methodism.

No one comes to the Father except by the Son. As long as this is kept in place, dialogue is open to the great world religions, and urgently needed. But dialogue which has no self-identity is not dialogue.

We deny that it is an "un-Wesleyan spirit" to do what Wesley himself constantly did: call the church and the world to scriptural holiness. If that involves conflict with defensive, waning, bureaucratic knowledge elites, we will face it with equanimity and pray for the grace to speak the truth in love.

It is misleading to caste the Confessing Movement as "un-Wesleyan" when it is clearly committed to the renewal of Wesleyan teaching, and hence ancient ecumenical teaching, within United Methodism.

We stand under the authority of the revealed Word, Jesus Christ, as the Risen Christ meets us in the written Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If that is what some mean by authoritarian, we happily confess it. It is the truth that sets us free.


Thomas C. Oden is Professor of Theology at Drew Divinity School and on the Board of Directors for the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church.

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